Poetry at Work, The Book: Introduction Excerpt

Following is an excerpt from our new book, Poetry at Work. Why publish such a book? Because we want to give people a new way of understanding their work, help them find meaning in it, and provide practical tools for altering work cultures and their own approaches to everything from the business meeting to the business crisis.

Introduction, from Glynn Young’s book Poetry at Work

In a meeting, I discover poetry at work.

It’s a weekly meeting. Same time, same people, and almost always the same agenda. We meet because meetings are mandatory to make a cross-functional network breathe. It can be mind-numbing, hearing the same weekly voices making the same weekly points, but the sameness and even the mild boredom offer the sense—or illusion—of a safe, predictable, and comfortable work environment.

Unexpectedly, I hear a submerged conversation. The same ideas, statement, voices and goals are converging to form an almost musical repetition.

Trying not to look too alarmed, I continue to listen to this music as I watch the musicians—meeting attendees—play each part. I’m discovering an underlying structure to this meeting, this music composition.

It’s poetry.

I listen; I watch. Facial expressions, tone of voice, hand gestures, body language—they’ve all converged, orchestrated as poetry, rising from the citizens of a corporate subculture.

Then I realize something else.

Poetry has always been at work.

As I hear these sounds and rhythms and repetitions, I realize that poetry shows up not only in a weekly meeting but in many other areas of work—poetry is so embedded in the presentations we make, the spaces in which we work, and the successes and failures and challenges of work, it can’t be separated from them. When we work, we express and create poetry.

I settle back in my chair, stunned that poetry has been here all along, in every job I’ve ever had. All I have to do is look for it.

Photo by Jenny Downing, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Excerpt from Glynn Young’s Poetry at Work.

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Poetry at Work Business and Poetry Books
Poetry at Work, by Glynn Young, foreword by Scott Edward Anderson

“This book is elemental.”

—Dave Malone


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  1. Larry Bole says

    “Poetry of Work” seems a more appropriate title to me than “Poetry at Work,” based on the excerpt provided here.

    Any human activity can have poetic elements. An example might be describing a fielding play in baseball as being ‘sheer poetry’, or describing the way someone moves as ‘poetry in motion’. The excerpt given here suggests that modern administrative office work and poetry share some elements in common: “musical repetition,” “sounds,” “rhythms,” “repetitions.”

    But ‘poetry’ and ‘work’ are not the same thing. Work can be poetic; it can also be unpoetic.

    Poetry can be made out of the experience of work, and poetry can be used to express the poetic aspects OF work. This is hardly a new idea. For anyone intereested, I refer, off the top of my head, to Ted Kooser’s poem, “Four Secretaries,” in which he finds a similarity to singing in their chatter among themselves.

    I contend that those poetic elements found in the workplace are NOT in and of themselves ‘poetry’, when poetry is defined as an artform of which the medium of expression is language being used in some ways differently than other uses of language.

    However, I recognize that the word ‘poetry’ itself has become in many ways meaningless, since these days it can mean whatever the user wants it to mean. To paraphrase Alice, in “Through the Looking Glass”:

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make [a word] mean so many different things.”

    These days, apparently you can.

    If poetry is the same thing as the recognition of poetic attributes, then any human activity can be seen as ‘poetry’ although, in my estimation, that runs the risk of trivializing what is meant by ‘poetry’, turning the word into a cliche.

    I would need to see a more compelling excerpt from the book to make me want to spend time reading it.

    • says

      Mmmm. I hear you.

      Might not be your book, Larry. Though I must say that the poignancy of how GLynn uses poetry (the way you would define it) to frame his days, to assist the way he sees his world, to solve problems and cull insights, is heartening. Not as just one more artificial tool, but as something deep and life-altering.

      My definition of poetry? Includes that, it does. And I mean the power of the actual words of actual poems being deep and life-altering. That might not be new. But, unfortunately, it is often cordoned off from the life of average people, living their days mostly at… work.

      • Larry Bole says

        Poetry can and should be used, as you say, “to frame [our] days, to assist the way [we see the] world, to solve problems, and cull insights.”

        And seeing the workplace as having poetic attributes may serve as a kind of analgesic to the ‘dolor’ of the workplace. I woke up this morning thinking about this, having worked for many years in an office myself, and I was reminded of Theodore Roethke’s poem, “Dolor,” which begins, “I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,” and speaks of the “Endless duplication of lives and objects.”

        If thinking of the workplace as a kind of poetry relieves the tedium of “endless duplication” (“the sameness,” to quote from the book excerpt), then more power to such thoughts. As Shakespeare has Hamlet say, “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so…”

        • says

          Love that: “the inexorable sadness of pencils.”

          Maybe seeing the workplace poetically is also a precursor for some… to let poetry in to shape their lives… whether that be reading or writing it.

          The banker poems are wonderful! Quite something, the way each translation has such different nuances. Do you have a favorite?

  2. Larry Bole says

    And since, LL, knowing you like haiku, and going off on a tangent, I offer this workplace haiku by Kaneko Tota (with various translations!):

    ginkōin-ra asa yori keikō su ika no-gotoku

    (this has been interpreted as being about what bankers look like while working under fluorescent lighting)

    From early morning
    These bankers have been working
    Like the shining squids.

    trans. Yoshinobu Hakutani

    The clerks in the bank
    fluoresce from early morning
    like so many squid

    trans. David Burleigh

    like squids bank clerks fluoresce in the morning

    trans. Jim Kacian

    bank workers from early morning shed fluorescence like squid

    trans. Sue Stanford

    bankers’ faces
    in early morning light —
    blue glow of squids

    trans. Carmen Sterba

    morning again
    bankers take their places
    beneath firefly squid

    trans. James Henry

    (These translations can be found here:


    and detailed background and commentary about this haiku, along with insight into Tota’s creative method–he was working as a clerk in a bank at the time– can be found here:

    http://www.roadrunnerjournal.net/pages92/specialfeature92.htm )

    • Larry Bole says

      I’m not sure all of those ‘translators’ read Japanese.

      Here is a literal, word-for-word translation by Makoto Ueda (from Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology. U. of Toronto Press, 1976)

      ginkooin-ra | asa | yori | keikoo | su | ika | no-gotoku

      bank-clerks | morning | from | fluorescence | make | squids | like

      and his English ‘version’:

      Like squids
      bank clerks are fluorescent
      from the morning.

      trans. Makoto Ueda

      I think this is a difficult poem to understand. I like parts of some of the translations. I guess I like Kacian’s and Stanford’s translations the best.

      I would take more liberties with my English version than a lot of haikuists might deem appropriate:

      in the morning
      bank clerks seem to glow
      like fluorescent squid

      — a version by L. Bole

      I picture the clerks sitting at their rows of desks in an open area (no cubicles), using their abacuses, writing figures down, getting up to move about among the desks on work-errands in an unhurried, deliberate manner, perhaps all having a faint sheen of perspiration if it was summer and the building hadn’t yet been air-conditioned back then.

      (And, according to Ueda’s mini-biography of Tota, as of 1976 Tota was back working at the Tokyo headquarters of the Bank of Japan, apparently reprieved from his exile to a branch office.)


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